Herzen in London

Alexander-Herzen-by-Nikolai-Ge-1867-233x300 Sarah Young over at her website:

When researching the history of Russians in London, Alexander Herzen presents a considerable problem. He is without doubt the most significant of all the writers and activists who visited London in the nineteenth century, not only because he settled in the capital for some years (1852-64), but also because many of his compatriots — Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, Vasily Botkin, Vasily Sleptsov — came specifically to see him. It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here. He is also the author of one of the greatest memoirs ever written, My Past and Thoughts, which is a massively important source on the Russian intelligentsia as well as being a very entertaining read. So he would seem like the ideal subject.

But for all the wealth of detail he presents, relatively little of My Past and Thoughts is devoted to his London life, and in general Herzen does not provide us with much commentary in other sources either. This may have been because he did not feel any rapport with the English, so failed to establish any real friendships, as Isaiah Berlin suggests. Perhaps, as London was the first long-term home he established after the disillusionment and failure of the revolutions of 1848, he was in no mood to seek out new acquaintances. Certainly, his description of his first days in London speak to preference for isolation: ‘I grew unaccustomed to others’; ‘Nowhere could I have the same hermit-like seclusion as in London’; ‘There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London’ (My Past and Thoughts, pp. 445-7). According to Bernard Porter (Exiles, p. 43), such negative feelings about Britain were common among the political refugees who arrives after 1848 – most of them had no desire to be here.